Opinion polls show [immigration] to be the second most important issue after the economy for voters nationally ahead of a May 6 election–more pressing even than crime, health or education.
“I think Britain and its multiculturalism is wonderful. But we need to have better controls,” said Zubair Zafar, 34, a British Muslim from a Pakistani family working on a stall selling Islamic garments and literature in Barking’s market.
“No one is checked and vetted before they come in. White indigenous people are feeling oppressed in their own country and I don’t blame them. Down the road there could be riots here.”
Zafar, who has always voted Labour, said he would probably vote Conservative, turned off by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also by Labour’s social policies.
The main parties have been reluctant to confront the issue. Political analysts say that is down to fears it could backfire and cost precious votes in one of the most tightly fought general elections in 20 years.
“The Labour government knows it cannot deliver the policy the vast majority want, because that is no immigration and that is not possible,” said Prof. Robert Ford, a political sociologist at Manchester University.
“It’s neither economically sensible nor is it legislatively feasible to stop–so they are not inclined to start talking about a subject where they know they are very much at odds with the public.”
For the opposition Conservatives, Ford says, it comes down to a perception they lost voters when they talked it up at the 2005 election, which they lost.
“They equate talking about it with intolerance and race prejudice,” he said. “There’s a belief that if they launch the debate then it panders to the image of them being labeled (in the words of a former Conservative minister) the ‘nasty party’–an image they are desperate to shake off.”
The influx has also brought accusations by opposition parties that Labour has lost control of the numbers entering Britain. It’s a charge Labour denies, but is still keen to be seen to be addressing with what it calls stricter controls.
RISE OF THE FAR RIGHT
In Barking, once a safe Labour parliamentary constituency, tension over the issue has paved the way for the far-right British National Party (BNP) to gain considerable ground.
The BNP says it wants to stop the “mass immigration invasion.”
In the 2005 election the anti-immigration party won 17 percent of the popular vote in the constituency, its best ever result, and it won 11 of the 51 local council seats in 2006.
This time, buoyed by winning two seats in last year’s European elections, the party’s leader Nick Griffin is standing as a candidate in Barking to try and secure its first parliamentary seat.
John Pacey, 42, a painter and decorator from the nearby constituency of Dagenham which the BNP is also contesting, said he would be voting for them.
“No one gets anything around here mate and they (migrants) get everything,” he said, gesturing at the passing crowds.
Anti-fascist organization Searchlight says the BNP intends to contest more seats than ever before, beating the 303 candidates its predecessor the National Front fielded in the 1979 vote which swept Conservative Margaret Thatcher to power.
Analysts say the reluctance of the main parties to properly engage voters on immigration could see the BNP and other minor parties capture floating voters.